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ABDELFATAH: Decision to move embassy to Jerusalem is counterproductive

Opinions Column: Global Perspectives

President Donald J. Trump announced yesterday that he will be recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the U.S. embassy there, overturning decades of U.S. foreign policy and potentially derailing any possible peace negotiations in the Arab-Israeli conflict. 

During his campaign then-candidate Trump repeatedly promised to move the embassy, which is currently in Tel Aviv, to highly disputed Jerusalem. Israel captured East Jerusalem during the Six-Day War in 1967, annexing it and declaring Jerusalem its capital. Internationally, Jerusalem is not recognized as the capital of Israel, and East Jerusalem is considered to be an occupied territory under international law according to UNSC resolution 2334, among others. No other country has their embassy located in the city. Past U.S. presidents have insisted that the fate of Jerusalem be decided in negotiations between the two sides, despite previous Israeli overtures to endorse their sovereignty over the territory. Palestinians view East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and the United States recognizing the city as Israel’s capital will more than likely be seen as an expression that the U.S. is not serious about the peace process or the two-state solution. 

In 1995, Congress passed a law calling for the establishment of a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. The law, though, allows for a national security waiver to be signed by the president every six months delaying its implementation. This has been signed twice a year by every president since former President Bill Clinton, an acknowledgment of the centrality of the issue and the security concerns surrounding any attempt to move the embassy, as well as its detrimental effects on the peace process. Trump informed key allies of his decision earlier in the week, receiving criticism from both Arab leaders and European partners, such as the president of France, Emmanuel Macron.

If the Trump administration cares about the peace process, then it appears that they are underestimating the importance of Jerusalem to any future peace in the region. According to a statement made by the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) chief representative to the United States, Husam Zomlot, declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel “would be actually the kiss of death to the two-state solution because Jerusalem is at the very heart of the two-state solution.” He went on to say that if the U.S. went through with this policy it would be disqualifying itself from any future mediation role. 

If there is any issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that can be relied upon to immediately inflame tensions, Jerusalem is it. This summer the Israeli government shut down Al-Aqsa Mosque and installed security measures inside after a clash between Palestinians and Israeli officers. This led to weeks of unrest in the city and ultimately a reversal of the Israeli action. To understand just how tense the stats quo in Jerusalem is consider this: there is a ladder in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem that has not been moved in centuries because to move it would be to undermine the status quo, and that would cause a conflict between the different churches that reside there.

The majority of Americans are against the move as well. A University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll found that 59 percent of Americans preferred that the Trump administration take a neutral role in the conflict, not siding with either Palestine or Israel. In addition, that same poll found that 63 percent of Americans oppose moving the embassy. Even among one of the most important segments of Trump’s base and a group that polls show is generally overwhelmingly supportive of Israel, Evangelical Christians, only a small majority support moving the embassy — just 53 percent.  

Former CIA Director John Brennan called recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and moving the U.S. embassy to the city “reckless and a foreign policy blunder of historic proportion.” Meanwhile, the State Department has instituted travel advisories for U.S. citizens in the region amid worries of a violent backlash. The administration is most likely betting that with everything else going on in the Middle East right now, such as the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, it will face limited actual opposition from the Arab states apart from some strongly worded statements and condemnations. The move undermines important U.S. policy priorities, though, namely fighting against extremism and limiting Iranian influence. Jerusalem is the perfect issue for these groups to mobilize on, and such a policy would only give them more ammunition. The Trump administration and the president himself have also often spoke of their desire to broker the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians. Moving the embassy to Jerusalem makes this infinitely more difficult. 

Yousuf Abdelfatah is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science and economics. His column, "Global Perspectives" runs on alternate Thursdays.


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